Narrating church success

Amid the chronic expressions of church (and Christian) decline there remain a few narratives of church success in urban North American settings. There are new Canadian congregations in which an established faith from another country/context is transplanted here transferring an existing vitality. Then there remains the suburban evangelical mega church model which skews either towards a charismatic spirituality and/or conservative family values (these sometimes have ‘satellites’ in the downtown area). These narratives of success tend to remain in keeping with the larger socio-economic forces whether it is the value of social cohesion and coherence of new immigrants, the capitalist aspirations of infinite accumulation in health and wealth charismatic spirituality, or the reassuring stability of the nuclear family in evangelical mega churches.

I would like to explore a third narrative of urban church success, namely those churches emphasizing the use of ‘higher-church’ liturgy and a more straightforward commitment to theological orthodoxy. While I don’t find this article particularly well researched, a recent response to Serene Jones’ denial of a ‘literal’ resurrection attempts to demonstrate how Jones’s liberalism is now passing and another generation is rising up who embrace an orthodox theology without retreating from present issues. This article is characteristic the common claims of orthodox forms of liturgy and theology that are revitalizing the church. I would like to explore this narrative of success through my experience at and reflection on St. Margaret’s Anglican Church here in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Before continuing I should add that by ‘success’ I simply refer to congregational/parish settings that reflects vitality in terms of broad demographic engagement, ministries offered, and profile in the larger community.

St. Margaret’s (StM’s) Anglican church played a pivotal role in my faith and intellectual development. I was stimulated, encouraged, and supported in my growth and professional development when I first attended some 20 years ago. Since that time the church itself is now a well rehearsed success story among the more common refrain of church decline and dissolution. The success of StM’s was most recently profiled in Christian Century but already ten years ago StM’s was paid significant attention in my denominational magazine as well as a Master’s thesis written on its relationship to Mennonites more particularly (the running joke still being Q – What is the fastest growing Mennonite church in Winnipeg? A – St Margaret’s Anglican) . As a minister of a formerly large, now declining church perhaps I am just a little jealous. I try to set that aside. I also have many friends who presently or previously attended and so I should be clear that follows is not meant to discourage anyone from attending. In what follows I am simply paying attention to my disease around the established narrative of this success story as well as similar narratives of success.

As I mentioned earlier I began attending StM’s about 20 years ago in the early upswing of its resurgence. I was attending a small evangelical college outside Winnipeg and StM’s partnered with this college to offer an evening elective on the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Several of us attended the series held at StM’s. Through circumstances I don’t fully remember I began attending Sunday worship regularly. I began meeting regularly with the rector (then, as now, David Wibbicome), continued attending courses offered and eventually I got involved in worship.

I was in the middle of my undergraduate degree and quite theologically uniformed. The Mennonite churches of my upbringing were increasingly unsatisfying and what I found, though I would not have been able to articulate it at the time, was a confidence in another model of faith and theology that was neither a rigid conservativism/evagelicalism nor a secularizing liberalism. So what was being offered? At the time I would simply have used adjectives of experience and said things like deep and weighty; it was a way of staying intellectually critical and Christian. Interestingly enough after articulating my own initial experience I skimmed the MA thesis I mentioned earlier noting how author summarized reasons for Mennonites attending.

[T]hey attend St. Margaret’s because it is a church community in which they feel they have been able to acquire “a more profound sense of worship,” can “worship in a truly sacred space,” or have “developed a stronger faith.” Many also suggested that they attend St. Margaret’s because it is a place where they feel “more personally connected to God” and “theologically engaged” through various church rituals and traditions.

With some years of space and reflection I find myself articulating that experience differently. In some ways I am following a method I remember David Wibbicome himself sharing saying that to learn one often needs to allow oneself to be persuaded to the point of deep conviction but not past that point and it is there, at that point, that one can engage in criticism.

Briefly put, the wager of StM’s seems to be that Constantianism was not really so bad (or was inevitable to church success) and that we need simply honour this success (as we might also honour our failures). Put otherwise, the event of Constantine made sense in light of the logic and mission of the Gospel (that the whole world would come to Christ). A consequence of Constantine, practically, has been a confidence in the liturgy (and theology) of the church to best narrate the truth and well being of the whole world.

Years ago in a small reading group led by Widdicombe he said as much in relation to one of his intellectual influences at the time, Oliver O’Donovan, noting that what else could the church have expected but that one day even an emperor would convert. In that same seminar the texts we used also challenged the claims that God’s preferential option for the poor in liberation theology was potentially apostate if not first grounded in (and authorized by) orthodox theology. We read John Milbank who attempted to expose secularism’s policing of the boundary between sacred and profane and how the church had the ‘deeper’ resources of truth and peace. Still the wake of postmodernism all of these resources pointed to the reclamation of Christianity’s grand narrative and its ability to ‘out-narrate’ any other expressions.

These resources, I found, were often connected to the notion of theological and liturgical ‘imagination’. Within this imagination we could see the same world differently. These were new and inspiring times for me. I had never encountered this sort of narrative of church success. The evangelical and Mennonite narratives laid so heavy a burden on individual activity and faithfulness that the possibility of ‘success’ was intimately bound to the experience of personal stress and expectation. But within this grand theological imagination as communicated at StM’s one could simply participate in and receive God’s reign without success lying on the shoulders of each individual. Two images come to mind in clarifying this distinction.

Attending a small intellectually informed baptist church in Hamilton I remember one communion service in which we all held a piece of the bread together until the pastor led us in eating it at the same time. I clearly remember watching the pastor eating his piece, chewing on that piece with meaning, emoting a sense of deep satisfaction and . . . communion. The performance and significance of the bread was clearly intended to be aligned with his experience. At a communion service at StM’s I remember a friend going forward to receive the cup, grabbing it and drinking almost with indifference wiping his lips afterwards with his shirt sleeve. His input in drinking the cup was of little consequence to the cup’s efficacy. While these images are perhaps a bit too stark in their contrast I do belief they bring attending theologies into relief, that is the difference between achieving and receiving.

It is not surprising that a theology like StM’s is gaining traction. One way of characterizing contemporary culture is through an understanding of neoliberalism. To remain brief and focused I will point to neoliberalism’s emphasis on the role of individual choice as the highest human value (see Adam Kotsko’s work on neoliberalism and Christianity for further discussion here and here). Under neoliberalism every aspect of life is ascribed monetary value and placed in a market relation which is presented as free for the individual to participate in. We are sold this paradigm on the supposed benefits of free choice. On the surface it is difficult to argue with choice as a core human value, however it takes little effort unpacking this logic to expose the manner in which choice is leveraged primarily for the production of blame (I rely heavily on Kotsko here for this understanding). To choose is, in the last instance, to choose wrongly. Choice is used to keep those in power from having to make any changes. So long as individuals are seen to have choice those in power are absolved of any responsibility. Things are the way they are because we have chosen it. From here it is not hard to witness to the types of despair particularly among young adults who are trying to navigate decreased employment opportunities, increasing student debt, while also having to save the world from environmental disaster and various social injustices. If it is bad it is our fault. Put in this light it is not surprising that the relief of entering into a liturgy, a structure, in which choosing successfully is not needed for efficacy would be appealing.

The problem though is that this relief is often embraced without critically attending to the structure offering relief. And what is the structure of the liturgy reflected in spaces like StM’s? Well to circle back, it remains invested in the wager (often articulated in the commitments outlined above in Widdicombe’s reading group) that some form of Christendom remains the best possible response to our present age (or to any time and place really). My concern is that this is simply a reinvestment in the logic that has in fact produced our present age (and crisis). The theology and liturgy of Christendom is explicitly supremacist, that is, carrying a belief that the tradition and resources of the church are sufficient and superior prior to contact (never mind mutual or submissive engagement) with outside groups. Tired Christians (often tired evangelicals) find rest in such orthodoxy because it is precisely designed to comfort and assure them with the stable and inherited resources of Christian supremacy that still shapes their core understanding of the world.

It is of course possible to assert that one can believe something is true (remain committed to a particular tradition) without negating the truth or validity other expressions (that is, be convicted and non-supremacist). However, the claim of Christian theology has historically gone beyond affirming internal beliefs and practices as true but has actively stated (and created!) its enemies (Jews and Muslims) and adversaries (heretics) so as to appropriately position them in relation to the image of their God to whom all must submit (a concise outline of this argument can be found in Daniel Barber’s On Diaspora).

And so the strength and success of StM’s theology is in its larger theological (and political) structure. Increasingly I understand the need for such spaces of stability and coherent meaning. I get how the church can function in that role. But it is here at the level of institutional and theological stability that I want to drill in a little deeper for my critique of this narrative of success.

The first level of critique I have outlined is large and really relates to almost all of Christian theology. The role of the individual and individual choice being the main difference (between say evangelical and high church orthodoxy). The theology that informs the sort of grand theological vision at StM’s is one that relies on an orthodox understanding of God’s transcendence; a structure that typically functions as a guard against any fundamental questioning of core belief. One can acknowledge and argue around religious and doctrinal difference but there is finally no mechanism to overturn what is conceived as the lordship of Christ. The impervious nature of Christian transcendence is something I would rub up against in nearly any Christian church (including my own). Though I should add that various models of liberation and black theology have continued to engage Christian traditions and resources while naming more fully the supremacist inheritance that it so often bequeaths.

What makes the success story of StM’s even more interesting is how neatly it aligns with the successful gentrification of its surrounding neighbourhood. Wolesely is easily the clearest example of gentrification in Winnipeg. Decades ago Wolesely reflected many of the elements of urban decay reflected in the downtown of Winnipeg. The neighbourhood itself though was always designed to “be assured of a satisfactory class of neighbours.” (Winnipeg Free Press May, 1913; cited in a 1991 MA thesis exploring gentrification in Wolesely). The houses were larger and better quality than those built north of Portage. Through the 1980s and 90s the quality of these homes and their proximity to downtown drew young professionals in, renovating and expanding homes driving up prices and driving out many who could not afford to live there. This has resulted in a neighbourhood distinctly close to downtown while distinctly different from those it borders with lower ethnic diversity (primarily white) and higher household incomes (One can easily make out the Portage Ave divide in the visual of ethnic and economic distribution here). Wolseley created a structurally ‘safe space’ for those who wanted to enjoy proximity to downtown while minimizing its ‘undesirable elements’.

Without pushing the analogy much further I think it is worth drawing attention to the fact the gentrification of Wolesely and the success of StM’s seem cut from the same cloth in the sense of restoring a prior structural stability that was once threatened and in decay. After suburban flight and church decline both parish and neighbourhood were able to reclaim older social and economic inheritances that were built, at least in part, through past prejudices and often injustices. In this way the ‘faithful’ could simply ‘receive’ the spaces that protected them from the pressures of the day. Namely if you are Christian with a secure economic base many of the daily grinding choices can be made for you (and in your benefit). It is also worth noting (to circle back to my earlier split images of communion) that many of the more active churches north of Portage are evangelical. In this way they reflect the need to earn to hussle a space that is not guaranteed which remains the case for many of its residents.

I am certainly not claiming that my congregation or denomination escapes this logic of economic or theological inheritance nor that StM’s should be isolated in this critique. Rather, I am interested in the blindness or insensitivity that can accompany certain success stories depending on our proximity to them. I know most of us are looking for a win these days and many of us want a more respectable form of church if we are going to stick around. StM’s offers much that many who want to remain in the church could not find elsewhere. However, the ‘wins’ of gentrification and orthodox reclamation come from a game that is fixed. I am not advocating for an abandonment of Christian tradition, in fact I am not sure most of us can escape it if we tried. Rather, I am hoping for a commitment to ‘good news’ that is not rigged. For me the possibility comes not in the deployment of a grand imagination from which we can continue to reap dividends but in patient attention that allows for mutual formation (even submission) from which a new song might yet be heard or sung.

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